LAS VEGAS – The absence of Apple from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) year after year (it bugs everyone) and Microsoft Corp.’s decision to pull out of the CES after 2012 (what’s going on here?) has led many armchair pundits to jump (prematurely) to the facile conclusion that CES has slipped –despite colossal attendance numbers into an inevitable and irreversible decline.
Even during the show, some reporters and analysts complained that there wasn’t any “big” news at this year’s CES; every innovation was just “incremental” change.
Yeah, well (insert razzberry), I beg to differ.
In my opinion, this year’s CES gave a crystal-clear signal on how mobile devices today will dictate the design of tomorrow’s TVs, automotive infotainment systems, personal health systems, and more important, abundant apps that should run on every device cross platform.
What I heard and saw at CES now holds a prominent place in my analysis of the industry. I suspect the same for many others – whether design engineers, marketers or analysts – whose business is connecting the dots before the dots are evident.
Clearly – as indicated at CES 2012 – mobile devices, TVs, home theaters, PCs, set-tops, automotive and other embedded systems need better connectivity and interplay.
“CES is now playing to its strength,” Kanwar Chadha, CSR’s chief marketing officer, told me, in gathering all these different sectors of the electronics industry in one place. “Mobile World Congress [scheduled for late February in Barcelona, Spain] is good, but its scope is narrow. It’s limited to mobility,” said Chadha.
Not knowing new features and generations of the next-generation tablets and smartphones, it’s hard to figure out what your next embedded systems need to enable.
Chip designers developing individual function blocks need to identify which features will get sucked into which system’s SoCs this year and next.
As more tablets and smartphones find their ways to the CES, mobility has officially become the show’s third leg -- after TVs and PCs.
The PC segment is also making a strong comeback with the emergence of Ultrabook. We wonder what damage Ultrabook can wreak in the living room – at least enough to force TV manufacturers to develop a strategy for Ultrabooks /media tablets. Any such plan suggests a multi-screen living room, with little screens complementing (not supplanting) the biggie on the wall.
Whatever the strategy, the key is to simplify connectivity and increase usability in a way that delights – and makes sense to – consumers.
Attending live shows is always fun because you see actual demos (beyond the tedium of Power Point). Meetings with booth people always convey valuable lessons. Chance meetings (spotting a familiar face at a booth or bumping into someone you haven’t seen for months) are social treats that often turn educational.
Here are a few sound bites – some of which might turn into stories later, as I go about connecting dots.
1) What’s in store for HDMI 2.0?
DiiVA, often described as “China’s answer to HDMI,” is far from taking the Chinese market by storm yet, although TV prototypes by LG and TCL were spotted at DiiVA’s booth.
What’s DiiVA’s next move? Advance its own interface into what appears to be a newly opened up HDMI Forum, seeking new features for HDMI 2.0. DiiVA, whose spec is designed to connect devices in a network, carrying both data and uncompressed audio/video signals over a low-cost cable, wants to help, explained Steve Yum, president of DiiVA. As I was interviewing Yum at DiiVA’s booth, a gentleman with a CableLabs nametag drops in. He wants to know more about DiiVA. I am not sure where this is going, but at least I know now that it’s not just China, but America already knows about DiiVA.
2) Unintended consequences of iCloud
SanDisk has profited hugely from the growing number of smartphones with flash devices. But SanDisk’s good fortune doesn’t end there. As more data and services go into the cloud, hot data, to which mobile devices demand a quick and frequent access, is now being stored in flash devices instead of hard disk drives, according to SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra. Flash raids on data centers? I hadn’t thought of it before.
3) So, why do you need to have a Facebook icon on a large-screen TV?
I bumped into Frank Eory, a frequent commentator at www.eetimes.com, at CES in Las Vegas. As we compared notes, one of Frank’s remarks stuck in my mind. “Why are all the big TV companies slapping a Facebook logo on their screens?” He said, “The last thing I want to share with the rest of my family in a living room is my Facebook messages.” As vendors pitch “Smart TVs” and “Connected PCs,” here’s one thing to re-think. Don’t you agree?
4) Where’s the next sweet spot for mobile phones?
Smartphones will lose their distinction because every mobile phone will become a smartphone. You’ve probably heard this. If true, where’s the sweet spot for chip vendors looking for design wins in next-generation mobile handsets?
Rafael Sotomayor, vice president of Broadcom’s mobile platform solutions group, flatly says, “Huge demand for affordable smartphones is driving today’s mobile market.” Forget low-end smartphones. He said, “I’m talking about ‘affordable smartphones’ with no compromise” in features. LTE integration isn’t high on Broadcom’s agenda -- yet. Its goal is a sub-$100 smartphone (without operator subsidies) packed with features before the end of 2012.
I know Broadcom’s emphasis is “no compromise.” The company knows competitors like MediaTek are catching on fast. Sotomayor said, “Others may tell you that they, too, have a GPS feature in their SoC. But do they also support GLONASS?” GLONASS is a Russian GPS system. The combination of GPS and GLONASS, Sotmomayor stressed, leads to a vastly improved location experience for consumers.
5) Bluetooth in a remote control?
I always thought replacing IR with Bluetooth in a TV remote a bit of a stretch. After all, the consumer electronics business, especially TV, has always been about low margins. But with a Bluetooth low-energy remote, your remote will live “for life,” and you need not aim and point at a TV (or set-top) to change channels.
Is this enough to convert you to smart remotes? Probably not.
But wait. I saw a number of companies, like Monster and Cambridge Audio, beginning to license CSR’s aptX technology – a proprietary high-quality audio codec that runs on top of Bluetooth. AptX is said to offer consumers substantially better audio quality over a wireless connection than the standard Bluetooth codec. With AptX, system companies can develop Bluetooth-based solutions not only for iPod docks and wireless headphones, but also multi-speaker systems that eliminate the hassle of stringing cables all over the room.
Bluetooth remotes can definitely talk to these devices, too. It’s too bad CSR had to dump Zoran’s TV business. Zoran’s TV platform could have tied some of the things together, like Bluetooth in the home entertainment world.